The Politics Of Avatar The Last Airbender: How Sozin Could Have Won

Avatar was one of the defining fandoms of my childhood. The first series aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, with a second series, The Legend Of Kora airing from 2012 to 2014. In its time the franchise has spawned numerous comic books, a terrible live-action movie, and an upcoming Netflix adaptation.

The world of Avatar shown to us is heavily inspired by Asian culture and religion, and divided between four “nations.” Each nation corresponds to one of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Some citizens of these nations can control their nation’s element granting them higher standing in their communities than others.

Only one person has power over all four elements; the avatar. A human being whose purpose is to maintain balance in the world and act as an intermediary between humans and the spirit world. At their peak, an individual avatar has the knowledge of thousands of past lives to draw on and a near god-like ability to shape the world.

The existence of the avatar puts a serious limitation on what the governments of this world are able to do. It is assumed, but not always true, that nation in which that generation’s avatar is born will have a great advantage on the world stage. Some avatars pay little attention to their duties, others step in when needed, and some take it upon themselves to reorder the world as they see fit.

Avatar has been lauded for its focus on complex stories and themes and for its amazing worldbuilding. Even in 2022, there is no shortage of video essays and web pages dedicated to discussing the franchise in depth.

In this article, I will be talking about the geopolitics of the Avatar World and how the existence of the avatar is likely to influence the decision-making of government leaders.

The Four Nations Living In Harmony (Sometimes)

Sozin’s armies were impressive but misused. All that order, all that productivity could have been put to a much more deceitful use.

The first series takes place at the end of the 100 years war in which the fire nation attempted to conquer the rest of the world. The end of the war saw the creation of a fifth nation from the colonies established by the fire nation during its war. I am choosing to only focus on the original four for the time being.

The first thing that needs to be clear is that none of the nations depicted in the franchise are in any way democratic.

The Air Nomads – probably the least authoritarian regime. The air nomads lived in four temples across the world. Their temples seem to be run by elder monks but the society seems rather egalitarian overall.

The Earth Kingdom -a conglomerate of smaller polities centered around the Earth King in Ba Sing Sei. Bending seems to be rather here. Areas of settlements are divided by mountains and deserts.

The Northern and Southern Water Tribes – two distantly related groups, each with their own chieftain. The Southern Tribe seems to be weaker than the Northern Tribe.

The Fire Nation – an archipelago controlled by a ruling family of fire benders. Control over fire granted its people skill with metallurgy and other industry.

Creating A False Balance

The United Republic Council always seemed like a problematic solution to a complicated problem

The purpose of the avatar is somewhat nebulous. Ostensibly the avatar exists to maintain the balance between humans and spirits, which includes maintaining internal balance among both.

Of course, the avatar is unlikely to completely understand what balance is. Each avatar’s experiences and assumptions about what the default state of the world should be are different. An avatar’s powers are only unlocked with training, therefore they are unlikely to learn to speak with their past selves until their teenage years at the earliest. Plenty of time for them to establish their own personalities.

An avatar been born in the Fire Nation and raised as a loyal citizen would likely come to agree that the Fire Nation should spread their rule and “prosperity” to the entire world. An avatar born into a noble house in the Earth Kingdom might push back against the idea that the common people deserve a say in their government.

Our childhoods influence what we view as normal. Education and exposure to other ways of living may change how we view the world over time but it can be hard to shake off those early biases and assumptions. The avatar has an advantage here because they have countless past versions of themselves to consult when they find themselves confronted with a moral dilemma. However, these past selves would likewise have been influenced by their own biases and an indecisive avatar might just find themselves presented with dozens of conflicting solutions.

We know of two avatars who acted in an instinctual defense of the status quo. Avatar Kora is one. Initially, she balked at the idea that non-benders are treated as second-class citizens. Eventually, she began to sympathize with non-benders as she was made to confront her privilege. The other is Avatar Kyoshi. In response to a peasant rebellion in the Earth Kingdom, she created the Dai Li to preserve the Earth Kingdom’s heritage. Over time the Dai Li grew into a secret police force that ruled the Earth Kingdom from the shadows.

Aspiring to balance is one thing. Actually achieving it is another.

Geopolitical Cycles Revolving Around The Avatar

The Avatar exists to bring balance, but what does that mean to each Avatar? They have their past selves for council but each of them are different

Each avatar is reincarnated in a cycle so that each nation has a turn to produce its own avatar. This cycle is always the same, which allows the inhabitants of the avatar world to predict where the next avatar will be born. Because this cycle is so predictable, it’s sensible to expect governments to make decisions based on it. Successfully taking advantage of the cycle would require making plans on a generational scale. With multiple characters living to be well over 100, this is entirely possible.

What this cycle would look like is 50-80 years of the status quo propped up by the current avatar. Their nation of origin would likely influence who they sided with, but rulers could work around even true neutral avatars.

Once born, an avatar is not immediately effective. First, they must be discovered, then they must be trained. As I already mentioned, this period of education provides a chance for those close to the avatar to influence their priorities. More importantly, It provides a time span of 10-20 years during which the avatar’s ability to influence events is relatively limited.

It is this time span that governments would likely take advantage of. In fact, the Fire Nation did, following the death of Avatar Roku, Fire Lord Sozin took advantage of the situation to invade his nation’s neighbors. He then staged an attack on all of the Air Nomad temples and wiped them out in an attempt to kill the next avatar before they could become a threat.

This gap between avatars, which was extended to a century due to Avatar Aang becoming frozen in an iceberg, gave the Fire Nation so much breathing room that they came close to conquering the world. If they had succeeded it might not have mattered where the next avatar was born so long as the Fire Nation could find each avatar and raising them themselves. They might even choose to marry the avatar to Fire Nation royalty. Of course, the Fire Nation failed in the end, but they probably would have been far better off is Sozin had chosen to pursue a more modest agenda.

What Fire Lord Sozin Should Have Done

Humanitarian projects could have given the Fire Nation an avenue to win the hearts and minds of foreign youth

Following the death of Avatar Roku, Sozin had a chance to pursue an expansionist policy abroad. However, instead of waging a war for global domination, he should have adopted a much slower and more modest approach that takes advantage of two facts known to Sozin.

  1. The Fire Nation has 10-20 years to realistically pursue its goals.
  2. The next avatar will be born to the Air Nomads who are known for their pacifist ways.

These ten years are enough to begin to lay claim to various islands and territories on the periphery of the Earth Kingdom. Ancient documents could be forged and true histories distorted to imply that the islands may rightfully belong to the Fire Nation. This would give Sozin a chance to make offers of a diplomatic solution before resorting to the use of military force.

These actions create an image for Sozin as a reluctant conquered who merely cares about his people. If these attempts at seizing islands are successful, the Fire Nation gains a handful of commercially important trading posts and forward operating bases.

At this point, the best thing for Sozin is to establish some kind of peace or cease-fire on the assumption that a pacifist avatar would prefer to see a negotiated peace rather than get involved in a protracted war. Balance, in other words.

Once this happens Sozin would need to do two things.

  1. Establish himself as a kind and generous ruler for whom violence is a last resort. This may include humanitarian aid both at home and abroad, and growing trade relationships with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom.
  2. Fomet unrest inside the Earth Kingdom.

The key objectives of point one are for Sozin to establish himself as a ruler who wants peace and to build closer links with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom. In an ideal situation, some regions might even become economically dependent on Fire Nation trade and technology.

The second point takes advantage of the inherent weakness of the central government in Ba Sing Sei. The sheer size of the Earth Kingdom and the lack of a single national identity means that the Earth King/Queen’s control is tenuous. Rebel groups can be funded and propaganda spread. Without a clear and obvious enemy, the Earth Kingdom is likely to fall to into a period of instability if Kyoshi’s experiences with peasant revolts and warlords is anything to go by.

These conflicts in the Earth Kingdom should be made to erupt as the avatar comes of age so that these riots and rebellions occupy the bulk of their time. At this point there should be many factions in the Earth Kingdom that depend on the Fire Nation, are sympathetic to it, or are indifferent. With unrest in the Earth Kingdom the avatar’s main focus, Sozin could then deploy his armies and resources to help put an end to the fighting, while putting friendly governments and favorable treaties in place at the same time.

Once this is done, the main goal for the Fire Nation should be to maintain a favorable image in rebuilding the regions in which it intervened. These regions should become defacto client states of the Fire Nation so long as the avatar’s aversion to violence is accommodated.

Once that pacifist avatar dies, much of the world will then be used to this status quo, the Fire Nation will have another decade or two to cement its control. By the time the next avatar comes of age, the world will have found a new status quo and thus a new idea of what “balance” is.

Final Thoughts

The approach I outlined here is not without faults. There is no guarantee the avatar will remain sympathetic to the Fire Nation and once an army is unleashed it can be hard to keep the violence in check. A slow, simmering conflict like that between North and South Korea is a lot easier to accept than a quest for world conquest. As long as the Fire Nation can temper its expansionist impulses and keep the avatar’s focus on unrest within the Earth Kingdom I see no reason why the Fire Nation would not be able to establish a completely new world order in just a couple of generations.

Of course, all of this requires extreme long-term thinking, which I think is perfectly feasible in the world of Avatar where individuals regularly live for over 100 years and the nations have shown themselves in the 100 years war to be able to pursue consistent policies for extended periods.

But all of this is just what I think. How would you have conquered the world if you were Sozin? Leave a comment below or tag me on Twitter.

Mugs: A Review

Since I moved out of my parents’ house I’ve accumulated more mugs than any reasonable person needs. I’m also on the lookout for more. It’s gotten to the point where Emily regularly teases me about how many mugs I have. Even though she bought many of them for me. I admit, it’s a lot. But is it enough? Probably not.

So here is a review of some of my favorite mugs, some of them have a story behind them. Others are just neat.

Handmade Mug from Dalhonega Georgia

When I first moved out this was the mug I used the most often and the one that I am using as I write this. I don’t remember the name of the store where I got this mug but I do remember the circumstances.

It was almost immediately after my graduation from college, my cousin was getting married so my father and I drove down to Georgia for the wedding. My father’s sixtieth birthday was also happening that week and my aunts had arranged for a surprise party at a restaurant in Dalhonega.

After the party, my dad and I took a walk around town and wandered into a pottery shop where almost everything had been handmade by the man who owned it. We were looking around, and at this point I think we had signed the lease for my new apartment, and my dad decided that I needed a mug as a housewarming present and told me to pick one.

It’s a good mug and it’s safe for dishwasher and microwave use. Although the shape is a little unusual I really love the little imperfections from when it was made. It really adds to the uniqueness of the mug.

Saratoga Coffee Traders 10 Year Anniversary Mug

Saratoga Coffee Traders is a coffee shop in, you guessed it, Saratoga Springs. They’re also one of the best places to go to get Death Wish Coffee, which is not unique to them but they do sell a lot of it. If you haven’t had Death Wish Coffee then you need to. It’s loaded with caffeine, perfect for those morning where you want to wake up and induce a heart attack at the same time.

Besides serving various drinks and snacks, Coffee Traders also sells a selection of mugs, bagged coffee, coffee accessories, and coffee-sponsored comic books (yes you read that right). The problem is all of these cost money, so while I would stand in line waiting to order a large Death Wish I would often admire the various mugs on display and look mournfully at the price tags. So one Christmas my dad asked me what I wanted and I said I wanted a mug from Saratoga Coffee Traders.

He ended up getting me two of these anniversary mugs. These mugs are handmade and they are BIG. They are very well made and I like the colors, the problem is that they are so large that my coffee often cools down before I am able to drink it all. Because of this I don’t use these mugs often but I do enjoy them. Plus they tie in nicely to the next mug on the list.

Saratoga Guitar 25th Anniversary Mug

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.

“Damn that’s one fine looking mug. I want that mug.”

Well too bad. You can’t have it.

This mug was part of a very limited run that my father had made to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his store, Saratoga Guitar. He had always sold hats and shirts but had also talked for a long time about adding other merchandise. So to celebrate the stores anniversary he ordered a limited run of these mugs from Deneen Pottery. Deneen Pottery is the same company that made the Coffee Traders mug. They specialize in hand made, custom ceramics.

Besides being the owner of Saratoga Guitar, my father also organized and ran the Capital Region Guitar Show. A yearly/twice yearly (depending on the year) convention in Saratoga Springs for guitar aficionados. To celebrate the 25th year of being in business by father organized an after party for the 2019 show. Many of his friends came to perform for this afterparty, pizza was delivered hourly, and multiple charities came to fundraise at the event. My dad also ordered a very limited quantity of these mugs. Most of them were immediately sold or given to staff, so yeah, if you want one then too bad. You should have come to the show.

This mug is a little awkward because of the large lip, but it’s easily my favorite mug and the one I use most frequently.

Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Mug

You may not know this, but I happen to be a brother of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity, the world’s oldest and largest secret national music fraternity. Though Greek Life has many issues, fraternity members rarely live up to stereotypes, and for many fraternities provides a safe space for men to connect with other men without having to worry about the baggage that comes with toxic masculinity.

Being a part of this fraternity helped me a lot in college, I was chapter president during my senior year and since graduation I’ve continued to work with my fraternity as a regional alumni coordinator. Mostly I just send out newsletters, but it gives me something to do and many alumni are very appreciative of my efforts and it’s nice to be appreciated.

I don’t get as many occasions to wear letters as I used to, but I like keeping around a few mugs that I can break out during virtual province meetings.

American Chemical Society Membership Mug

The American Chemical Society does this cool thing where they send mugs to their members that correspond to the number of years they have been a member. This one is Hydrogen (Element 1) because it was send to me for my one year anniversary of membership. Roughly.

Unfortunately I don’t have any more of these because membership fees are expensive for a lowly graduate student such as myself so I chose not to renew. But still, I love ACS swag.

The Wisdom of Uncle Iroh Mug

This is a relatively recent addition to my collection. At the start of quarantine I got back into Avatar the Last Airbender, and I mean REALLY into it. And so did several of my friends.

Randomly, my friend Lauren, who is also a fan, saw this mug and ordered me one and I love it. Lauren is pretty cool and you should check her out. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as a_science_life, she also founded ForensicBites, a scicomm initiative that makes new developments in forensic science accessible to the general public.

Hartwick College Mug

One of my greatest regrets from undergrad is that I never bought a mug. I was a poor college student so I would often admire the mugs and other drinkware but never bought one. Eventually, I graduated and I was a poor college student no longer. Instead I became a poor graduate student and I was finally able to buy one of the mugs I had wanted for so long.

I have no complaints about this mug but also no special praise. I enjoy the shape of it and the finish has a nice texture. The only problem is that sometimes soap scum sticks to the outside. It’s not a big deal though, and it’s a good mug.

Thanks for reading this far! This post is a little different from my normal content. If you like it and want me to create more content you can help out by buying me a coffee.

The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

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Is The Legend of Korra Any Good?

Maybe.

I began watching (several years late) knowing that fans have a love/hate relationship with the show. Nevertheless, I tried to keep an open mind and managed to make it through to the end. And I have a lot of thoughts. I struggled writing this post, I tried to write a coherent essay about the Legend of Korra. Instead have this listicle.

If I had to sum up my thoughts about what was wrong with the series it would be this. It had a lot of potential, multiple good moments, and a lot of missed chances.

The Bending

If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know by now that I love magic systems and bending is no exception. The world of Avatar is one of the few examples of a fantasy world where elemental magic doesn’t feel like the cliche. It feels real and it’s an integral part of the setting and culture. Getting to see subsets of bending reach maturity, especially metal bending, is just great.

It was also great to see an airbending master let loose. Don’t get me wrong, Aang is great, but he never really put his airbending on full display like Tenzin does in this series.

I guess airbending is good for something other than marble tricks after all.

Finally, I was glad to see the creators stick with giving each style of bending a distinctive visual. Pro Benders, the professional athletes of the Avatar world. have a very distinctive style regardless of element that shows a focus on quick attacks and agile dodges. That this style of bending rarely holds up outside of the confines of the arena is a nice touch.

The main issue with the bending in this series is Korra’s weakness. Already at the beginning of season one it’s implied that she has already mastered three of the four elements. Yet throughout the series she repeatedly get’s brushed aside by her opponents. This is especially apparant in season one when she starts Pro Bending and apparently forgets everything she knows about bending in the process. Her fights with the Equalists are filled with quick jabs like those used in the arena when she could have just brought the building down. By the end of his first season Aang was sinking entire fleets on his own. With the exception of an incredibly cartoonish fight in season 2 we never get that from Korra.

The Villains

None of the villains were bad exactly, at least the ideas for them weren’t. It makes sense that non-benders would begin demanding equal treatment or that established forms of government would be overthrown or forced to change. Or that people would forget to honor the spirits and cause backlash by doing so.

The problem with these villains is that we never really get to explore their motives. In her role as avatar Korra takes for granted that the world is already the way it should be. In season 4 it’s finally said that Korra helped get better treatment for non-benders but that’s not something we ever see her caring about in the first season while she is fighting Amon.

In Avatar the Last Airbender the protagonists dealt with concepts like imperialism, war , refugees, gender roles, and disabilities to name just a few. Legend of Korra introduces its own ideas, but never really deals with them in the same way. Time and time again Korra sees the problems that gave rise to the villains she has to face and each time she turns the other way.

Not Doing the Thing

So conflicts could have been resolved if the characters had done the sensible thing. I realize that if characters never made mistakes we’d never have story, but LoK has some really spectacular mistakes.

Why for example did Suyin Beifong refuse to restore order in Ba Sing Sei after the Earth Queen’s death? Morals aside, she at the time ruled one of the most advanced cities in the world with dedicated cadre of trained fighters. She had at this point already took her forces out of the city to help the avatar and the fledgling air nomads. Her refusal to help led directly to Kuvira’s rise to power.

While we’re on the topic of inaction. Why in season four was the Fire Lady so unwilling to take action against Kuvira? Given all the work Zuko put into rehabilitating the nation’s image after the war this attitude makes sense to a point. Did she really forget that her son is a part of the army that would very likely have to fight Kuvira on its own if the Fire Nation refused to help?

For a country seemingly dedicated to inaction the United Republic has a lot of warships.

And why didn’t General Iroh just order his troops to fight Kuvira? I understand that the president had ordered him to surrender but it’s not like he wouldn’t have been able to see what a terrible idea surrender was. Plus as a member of the Fire Nation’s royal family he isn’t lacking in career options. After the role he played in season one, his part in season four was just disappointing.

The Spirits

I actually enjoyed Avatar Wan’s story. I know a lot of people did not. But it didn’t actually contradict any of the existing lore, if anything it gave it greater context, and the different art style made it clear that the story was being told with some embellishments.

The problem I have is with how the spirits were portrayed in the rest of the series. in the Last Airbender the spirits had gravitas. They were forces of nature or strange creatures bordering on being eldrich horrors. LoK’s spirits are essentially neopets that get angry sometimes. It’s no wonder the people of the Avatar World stopped listening to them.

I do however like that Iroh was able to live on in the spirit world. It made sense for his character and as a big fan of Iroh I was glad to see him come back.

The Tech

At first the huge jump in technological progress that happened between ATLA and LoK was jarring, but it grew on me. The series has a wonderful steampunk/magitech aesthetic and the ways that we see bending and technology intermingle is just great.

Almost none of this tech got used after season one and that’s a tragedy.

With all the advances in technology I don’t quite understand why we don’t see as many non-benders taking part in conflicts as we did the ATLA.

The Verdict

The Legend of Korra had some good moments and a lot of bad moments, but it’s still a fun watch. If you want to see powerful benders driving around in shiny cars then this is the show for you. Like most things, it helps if you watch it for fun and don’t question it too much.

If you liked the first series then you should definitely watch this one, as long as you don’t raise your expectations too high you should still be able to enjoy it. I still don’t think it at all measured up to the first series, but at least I had fun watching it.

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All the images here were sourced from the Avatar wiki.